But when we talk about how to make ourselves smarter (essentially, how to maximize use of our brains) we tend to gloss over a critical piece of the puzzle: what exactly does it mean to become smarter? What would a “fully-maximized” brain really look like?
Put Down The Brain Games & Pick Up The Books (Or Leave The House)
When “brain-training” programs talk about building muscle-bound brains, they typically promise improvements in areas like memory, attention & problem-solving. The basic idea they espouse is that by playing their clever little computer games, you can significantly enhance your neural abilities in all of those areas—thus, making your brain more effective & efficient.
The capacity of your mind has now been maximized. Three cheers for little games!
And it’s true, those kinds of Lumosity-esque brain games can, indeed, make your mind more capable of confronting your daily challenges—as long most of your daily challenges & life goals involve successfully accomplishing tasks via little computer games. What’s that? You’re not a Korean teenager with a bright future in professional gaming?
In that case, you’re much better off trashing that Lumosity subscription and reading a great novel. Because odds are that great novel was created by a great mind in an effort to more deeply explore some aspect of actual human life. Conveniently, you are living an actual human life—making this new & complex narrative data not only pleasurable to consume, but relevant & applicable to your existence.
Or if you’re really more of a do-er than a reader, you could instead spend that time going out and having a new & challenging experience with real people at a real place in your actual life. Unsurprisingly, your actual life also provides useful data for application in future circumstances within your actual life.
We aren’t going to focus on the numerous scientific flaws in the “proof” behind the ever-growing market of web-based brain-game products—it’s no secret that neuroscientists have been almost uniformly vocal in their criticism of these brain-game’s supposed benefits. As those neuroscientists have noted (and as I explain in Narrative Complexity’s examination of “intelligence”) brain games don’t even actually improve the limited range of neural abilities that they claim to (like memory & attention).
The bigger problem, however, is that these kinds of supposed brain-training exercises are built on an entirely faulty premise to begin with: that attempting to improve the pure “mechanical” efficiency of neural systems responsible for attention, memory & problem-solving is a truly good way to actually make yourself “smarter.”
Is There Really A Smarter You?
No matter what you’ve heard—your brain is not like a muscle. When you exercise muscles, the actual physical properties of the muscles & surrounding attachments can be usefully improved. For example, their mass, flexibility & tensile strength can all be enhanced through exercise.
When you “exercise” your brain (essentially, intensely practice specific mental tasks) the actual physical properties of the neurons, synapses & neural structures aren’t truly improved, rather, the neural components’ structures & pathways are altered. Specific data, neural scripts & cognitive rules can be recorded or changed; associations can be created, shifted, strengthened, weakened; connections between certain data can become stronger, weaker, more fluid, etc., etc., etc.
In other words, if we think of the brain as a data-processing machine, exercising this machine does not improve the machine’s innate physical ability to process all future data that it encounters—exercising this machine changes how that machine processes a range of specific future data. This means that applying your mind to new or challenging tasks alters the neural structures & pathways that determine how the brain will respond to certain kinds of future incoming data.
As discussed in Narrative Complexity’s essay on memory & cognition, our brain’s innate physical processing abilities are primarily represented by: our individual neural networks' data recording & associative capacities, the capacity to manage & analyze fundamental patterns, the effectiveness of the mechanisms that “imprint” new or altered data structures, and the general speed of data-processing. And when we say innate, what we’re mostly saying is inborn & unchangeable.
Yup, you heard me right. All of those neural attributes that ultimately determine whether you’re driving a Ferrari or Ford around in your cranium—all those processing-ability-defining capacities that those brain-game-hawkers are promising to pump up—they’re all pretty much hard-wired in you from the start. (Something reflected in the fact that IQ scores—specifically designed to assess many of these fundamental capacities—tend to remain generally static throughout an individual’s lifetime.)
But before you begin wailing about the incredibly un-egalitarian unfairness of such a premise, let’s take a moment to explore our vehicular analogy with a little more depth…
First, consider that humans tend clump themselves into convenient statistical bell curves. This means that—in terms of our imagined Ferrari & Ford—the vast majority of us are actually driving something more in the middle of those two. And thus, in the end, our successes are much less about the car we’re driving and more about how we choose to drive it.
Even in the cases of the Ferraris & the Fords, on a day-to-day basis they’re both nearly equally capable of serving their primary purpose: getting us from here to there. This is the same with our brains. Most of our days & weeks are not filled with tackling highly-complex tasks that require robust, highly-capable neural systems in order to succeed. Most of our days & weeks simply require us to, at most, make difficult (& often emotionally-conflicted) decisions in a range of varied-but-familiar areas of our lives.
Success in our most-important & challenging everyday mental tasks isn’t about how well you remember things (a capacity that can easily be enhanced by developing a habit of, say, writing stuff down) or how fast your neural structures process data. In your everyday existence, it’s ultimately much more useful to become better at making difficult (& often emotionally-conflicted) decisions in a range of varied-but-familiar areas of our lives.
What we’re really saying here: getting “smarter” isn’t about becoming more innately intelligent, it’s about becoming wiser.
Yes, It’s True, There Is A Smarter You
Life is about action, and actions are about choices. Whether or not an action succeeds in achieving the goal isn’t always entirely about us, but how we choose to act & if we choose to act are still the two main life-success factors that we actually control.
And if you want to make better choices, you need to: make more accurate predictions about possible outcomes and their actual value to you & your community, improve your ability to effectively discriminate good data from bad, and deepen your capacity for developing more diverse, reliable & creative solutions. These are essentially the mental skills & tools that comprise wisdom.
Thankfully, unlike those innate physical processing abilities, the skills & tools listed above can all be powerfully shaped & enhanced through experience & study. This means that increasing the quantity (& variety) of the interactions, narratives & knowledge that you experience & study—and deepening your immersion in myriad avenues of experience & study—can actually make you wiser (aka, truly smarter).
You want to become smarter? Live your life. But live it fully, broadly, deeply. That better you that all Americans are chasing—the confident, engaged, grateful, contented & smarter human we seek to be—begins with wisdom. Wisdom comes from living.
And failing. Embracing one’s existence fully, broadly & deeply necessarily means risking failure. Lucky for us, in terms of making better predictions & developing better solutions, failure can be a fantastic thing.
Failure is what can spur us to seek out & create those better solutions & new ideas. In neural terms, failure can force us to “re-jumble” the puzzle within our cognitive mechanisms & build new structures that might then handle similar kinds of patterns or problems differently in new encounters—which is how we actually improve our ability to make better & more successful choices in the future.
Wisdom comes from living because, to our brains, living is learning. And all good learning is served with ample side-dish of failure.
Let The Machine Loose
Although a chorus of misguided capitalists, careerists & consumerists would like you to believe otherwise, life is not a zero sum game of accumulation & ascension. The better career, the better car, the better house, the better toys, the better brain. Our lives, and the brains that they define, are complex, ever-changing processes honed & shaped by our experiences. Working diligently (& futility) to polish the gears & wiring that make those lives & brains hum is entirely beside the point.
Let the machine be messy, smudged, occasionally-unsuccessful—it will still continue humming with mostly adequate efficiency—but don’t be afraid to let the machine loose in the world. Give the machine passions to chase, then chase them far & wide.
How can you improve your memory & attention? Find a way to become genuinely interested & invested in whatever it is you’re doing, and your focus & attention will follow (and thanks to the way our memory works, you’ll also probably remember the experience better).
How can you improve your problem-solving? Patterns, patterns, patterns—keep finding new ones & new challenges that might reveal them. Seek them fully, broadly & deeply. More diverse, reliable & creative solutions are primarily the result of successfully cross-pollinating a wide range of previously-consumed narratives, ideas, solutions, and failures—a resource that is powerfully enhanced by, wait for it…yes, living your life fully, broadly & deeply.
Experience & study. Despite all the fancy new neuro-gadgetry & knowledge available to us 21st-century humans, it turns out that getting smarter is still best achieved by some pretty ancient methodologies. Which really isn’t so surprising—considering that those methodologies have emerged via hundreds of millions of years of evolution (and Lumosity never even suffered through any of the Bush presidencies).
Sure, embracing life can be challenging (which is kind of the point) and brain games are like tiny candies (and candy is always good right now). But there’s a whole freaking world of ideas & stories & places & interactions out there in one form or another. If you devour those commodities fully, broadly & deeply, then simply venturing into that whole freaking world (in one way or another) can actually, truly make you smarter.
And although it may have nothing to do with making you the better you—you might even accidentally enjoy the journey.